Social media business model is underlying problem for disinformation – experts

Victor Barreiro Jr.
Social media business model is underlying problem for disinformation – experts
The real-time bidding industry for advertisements is seen as funding the algorithmic amplification of disinformation and hate speech

MANILA, Philippines – Experts on Thursday, November 7, cited the existing business model of social media – the multibillion dollar real-time bidding advertising industry – as an underlying problem that makes the algorithmic amplification of messages like hate speech and disinformation a lucrative proposition and a destabilizing force in a democratic society.

At the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and “Fake News” in Dublin, Ireland, these experts were called on to describe what the evidence on online harms, hate speech and electoral interference tell about the problem of disinformation and fake news, and were asked to explain what they thought most urgently needed to be addressed as a whole.

Threats to democracy

Dr Karlin Lillington, a technology journalist and columnist for the Irish Times, said the business model of social media and search platforms, in which they extract data from users while encouraging users to “addictively engage with and return to the platforms is the foundation of serious problems” that need to be discussed.

“Too often, the focus of policy discussions is on the risks posed by social media in established democracies, but the most vulnerable victims are ironically those who fight most courageously on behalf of democracy – human rights defenders,” she added.

Human rights defenders, she explained, do not want to leave social media because it also provides them tools with which to help disseminate information and allow them some anonymity, such as through encrypted messaging, even if the problems of social media lend to their own harassment.

Facebook, Lillington said, has also been implicated in reports of “ignoring anti-democratic campaigns on the site and inexplicably viewing despots as opportunities to extend platform reach.” 

She also mentioned how Facebook aided the Philippines’ Duterte campaign in learning more about social media use – even though, the expert said, knowledge of the country’s vigilante anti-drug squads was already known. (READ: Did Cambridge Analytica use Filipinos’ Facebook data to help Duterte win?

How real-time bidding works

Calling it a “cancer eating at the heart of legitimate media,” Dr Johnny Ryan, chief policy and industry relations officer at private web browser company Brave, explained how the real-time bidding business model of social media works.

“The problem of disinformation arises because of what happens every time you load a webpage. As a page loads, a broadcast with information about you is sent to tens or hundreds of companies every single time. The intention is that this allows technology companies who represent advertisers to compete for the opportunity to show you an ad.”

Ryan explained that while this seems innocuous, the snapshot of data may include inferences on things like your sexual orientation, your political views, your religion, health issues you may have, and “the precise thing you’re watching or listening to or reading at that point in time and where you are.” This snapshot lets your data be put into a virtual dossier or profile about you.

Worse still, real-time bidding allows criminals to operate fake profiles and bots to divert money – an estimated $5.8 billion to $42 billion – from publishers out of advertisers’ wallets and into criminals’ pockets.

Data as human right

Investor and author Roger McNamee called on personal data to be classified as a human right and not an asset.

Citing a number of tech companies’ initiatives which not only exploit the weaknesses of democratic institutions but also accelerate the weakening of those institutions – such as  Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency and Amazon’s efforts in law enforcement – McNamee said platforms have “positioned themselves to replace democratic institutions.”

“The success of internet platforms has produced harm to public health, democracy, privacy, and competition on a global basis, and the driver of that is the algorithmic amplification of hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories as well as microtargeting based on massive surveillance,” McNamee said. 

McNamee added internet companies’ profits are inflated because they do not pay the cost of the harm they cause. (READ: Facebook hit by ‘tsunami’ of bogus political news – NGO)

Governments, he said, need new tools to constrain the business model of surveillance capitalism, hence the suggestion to have personal data classified as a human right.

Speaking about social media, he added, “We have to be prepared to shut them down for periods of time when they misbehave because they are clearly defying democratic governments around the world.”

McNamee also testified in the May 2019 assembly of the committee, saying that governments should threaten to shut down social media platforms to create leverage. 

Deterring interference campaigns

Speaking about election interference, Ben Nimmo, non-resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, outlined 4 urgent needs that ought to be addressed and where the work of parliamentarians could have immediate impact.


First, Nimmo said election campaigns should increase their cybersecurity training and contingencies to prevent “hack and leak” operations.

Second, there needs to be a deterrence system in place for election campaign interference from foreign or domestic actors.

Third, there should be legislation that imposes costs on commercial operators of fake accounts or those who hire out influence campaigns.

Lastly, Nimmo said there should be a discussion on how to reduce polarization online through regulation and education as a long-term goal. He explained, “We should always remember that if we did not have domestic trolls, the foreign trolls will not have anyone to pretend to be.”

Tech companies’ ‘vast unchecked power’ a global risk

Investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr meanwhile took Facebook to task for Mark Zuckerberg’s absence from the International Grand Committee, and said Britain’s Brexit vote was “fraudulently and illegitimately conducted.” (READ: Facebook grilled at international committee on disinformation)


Cadwalladr said Facebook, along with other tech companies, “facilitated multiple campaigns to break the law.”

“We know that the authorities have entirely failed to hold these perpetrators to account. We know we are set in Britain to leave the European Union on the basis of this fraudulent and illegitimate vote,” the journalist said. 

“Britain is now a warning to the rest of the world,” Cadwalladr explained, as the country itself is gravely affected by the amplification of disinformation.

“The vast unchecked power of the Silicon Valley companies represents a truly global risk,” she said.

Referring to Facebook again, Cadwalladr also discussed how Facebook refused to hand over subpoenaed documents that might explain when Mark Zuckerberg learned about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

She concluded, “Facebook cannot be trusted to run the world’s elections, no company can, and I hope that the company moves towards a total ban on micro-targeted political advertisements and that it seeks to obtain forensic evidence of what actually happened on Facebook’s platform in 2016 in the US election and the EU referendum. This information cannot remain the private property of a private company.” –

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Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.